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Dec 19 2013

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Improvised home automation

The ideal solutions for home automation devices are usually plug-and-play units or modules. They often require just powering the unit and adding to your main controller. I came across unique situation in which a Z-wave, x10 or Insteon modules does not exists, but a solution can be made by combining automation modules with types of electronic/electric units. It is technically an improvising what you can get on the market. However, it does not necessarily means the final outcome of these projects are lower in quality compared to plug-and-play solutions.

Electric shock alertPlease note that some modifications may result in voiding the manufactures’ warranty. Some project involves working with ~ 110/240 volts alternating current (AC). Even with the power cut offed, there is always a risk of electric shock.

Garage Door

Currently there are no manufactures or distributors in Canada that sells openers with automation as a built-in function. I have used a inline relay module between the traditional opener switch and power. If you are unfamiliar with what is an inline relay, check these items: Fortrezz MIMOLite Zwave Input Output Module and Evolve ZWave Inline Relay Module-LFM-20.

These relays acts as a human input to any device that has a ON/OFF type switch(es). Some of these may not work for devices that require continuous ON such as an electric heater. Make sure you read the manufacture’s datasheets before purchasing.

Door Opener

Yes, you can buy a automated door locks from companies like Kwikset, Schlage and Yale. But it will only allow you to either lock or unlock your door. What if you want to open the door remotely? To do that you need a motorized door opener. You can buy a door opener unit for either swing door or slide door type. They comes with an electric motor, mounting equipment, a switch and a remote. What lacks is any form of automation controlling unit (Z-wave, x10 or Insteon).

When you are purchasing a electric door opener, make sure it also has a push-button connection. You will replace this push-button with your inline module.

Again, we can use an inline module like MIMOLITE between the motorized door openers such as Skylink Otodor Automatic Swing Door Opener and its power supply. Then by adding the the module to network, you can open and close the doors with your computer or phone.

Security Cameras

There are several companies that produce high quality cheap security cameras. For indoor use, almost all of the reputed companies make great products that are simply plug-and-play modules. I also like the fact they are often independent standalone units. In other wards they can operate without a central controllers like Z-wave controllers.

In Canada, we run into one big problem; weather. Most wireless outdoor cameras are built to work between -20 to +40 degrees Celsius. In most parts of Canada (such as Calgary) we get temperatures as low as -40 oC during Winter months. You could buy a extreme weather cameras with a heated casing. But it will not only cost a lot for the unit, but also the subsequent costs for heating will add up over the years. Hence we must improvised with these cheap IP-Cameras if we want to use them outside.

Solution 1: Use indoor units

You can install a high grade indoor camera such as D-Link DCS-5222L close to a wide outside window (inside the house). Now by pointing the camera towards the outside, you can still surveils the outside without having a weather proof unit. The major drawdown is that the Infrared (IR) LEDs will bounce off the window at night causing distorted image. This can be overcome by turning off the IR mode and illuminating the outside area with a flood light.

Solution 2: Install on the other side

If you want to protect areas like your garage, you can install the camera inside instead of outside. In most situations this will provide adequate protection from weather. The darwdown is that if you have an enclosed area, you will not be able to see the outside. However, if someone breaks into the garage, that can be recorded.

Solution 3: Creating your own weather casing

This is really a improvised do-it-yourself project. You can create a metal or wooden box and add a HVAC pipe into the box from your house. So whenever the house is heated, the camera enclosure will also be heated. Please make sure that you are doing this according to the laws of your area. Some cities and countries would not allow you to use such methods due to safety reasons.

Last option is not really an improvise. You can just buy a Canadian outdoor weather reared camera. In December 2013, it will cost you around $300 to $2000 depend on the manufacture and the model.

When installing a wired outdoor camera (or anything else), make sure to use outdoor rated cables.

Plumbing

I would not buy a fully integrated taps or water controllers. This is because electric taps are often well-built. However, the electronics go into the automation can be unreliable. You do not want a leak after few years of use or unwanted turn on/offs. The solution is to buy an electric taps/water controllers with a push-button switch. Hence, the automation part will be added using a inline module that is independent of the water controller itself. Easy to install and easy to do maintenance work.

Electrical

I would not recommended improvising for anything to do with electrical. It not only pose a hazard to your health, but also could lead to criminal charges. But there are something you can do in your own home. Even the garage door and light switches automation involves electrical modifications.

Missing Common Wire

If you have a situation in which a Common Wire (“white wire) is not available in your house or the area in question, you have two options. One is to run a Common Wire from your main board to the location, and the second is to use a plug-in module. If you are not familiar with electrical work, I recommend the second option. You can connect lamps, electrical appliances, consumer electronics and many more to a plug-in module. Make sure you use the right module with proper rating. The module will plug-into the wall outlet and provide outlet with automation. The Evolve ZWave Plug-In modules are examples of such units.

LED dimmer causes flickering

This is a very common problem with LED dimmers and not the Z-wave module itself. Sometimes when the resistance, R on the circuit is extremely low and the current, I flow is also reduced through the dimmer, it will cause the LED lights to flicker. This happens when the dimmer at its lower illumination setting.

To resolve this we need to increase the resistance in the circuit. The best solution is to install at least five to eight LED light bulbs in a single circuit. You can try by adding one at a time until you no longer have this problem. If that is not viable solution, install a mixture of both LED and regular bulbs on the same circuit. However, I found by mixing manufactures of LED bulbs I was able to stop the flickering with just three LEDs.

Outdoor electrical modules

When working on an outdoor automation project, use outdoor approved electrical products. For example, GE ZWave Outdoor On/Off Module-45604 should be used when you are installing a sprinkler system. Do not try to save money by buying an indoor module to control an outdoor electrical products. There is a reason why outdoor units can be bit more expensive!

Please be aware that you may not be able to automate anything and everything. Use common sense and if you are not sure of something, do your research and/or ask an expert. Most manufactures and distributors also provide free support. Use them as a resource.

Advantages of Improvising

There are several advantages. I decided to list them so you can quickly glance through each one.

  • In-line modules can be from any manufactures and can be on any standard (Z-wave, x10, etc)
  • Most of the time, it is easy to install with improvised solutions (describe in the article)
  • If a unit/module fail, it is easy to replace as opposed to replacing an expensive and complicated unit
  • Parts can be easier to find (for example, an electric tap from Canadian Tire and a controller module from a Z-wave specialty store)
  • May be more reliable than having a single plug-and-play
  • Can be install on almost any house regardless of the age of the house or the electrical wiring/plumbing/door system
  • Provide much more expansion possibilities

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